As the 2012 race for the Republican Party presidential nomination winds down, the last runner-up standing is Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. This time around, Paul has managed to snag about 10 percent of the overall primary vote (as of late April), up from 4 percent total in his 2008 campaign. He is sure to finish no lower than fourth in the delegate count and has hopes of climbing higher as the primary season stretches out through June 26.
By holding on, and by competing most heavily in states with convoluted caucusing procedures that allow his enthusiastic supporters to punch above their voting weight, Paul guaranteed that his voice—arguing, as always, for shrinking the scope of the U.S. government at home and abroad—will be heard at the Republican National Convention in Tampa this August. Meanwhile, the candidate’s ability to draw a crowd remain undiminished, with thousands routinely turning out for campus visits throughout the spring.
That said, 2012 marks the end of Ron Paul’s career as a politician. He is not running to retain the Texas House seat he has held since 1997, and there is no realistic chance that he will ponder another White House run in 2016 at the ripe old age of 81. The future of Paul’s ideas in the GOP will depend not on him but on the voters, activists, and candidates who follow in his footsteps.
In 2008 and 2010, dozens of self-styled “Ron Paul Republicans” sought office under the Republican banner. The biggest win was in Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, around Grand Rapids, where a young lawyer named Justin Amash snagged a seat. Amash is hardcore, a guy who sometimes votes no even when Dr. No votes yes and explains his every action to constituents on Facebook. A true child of the revolution, Amash became a fan of F.A. Hayek and Frédéric Bastiat while studying economics at the University of Michigan. Disgusted with the sameness of the Republicans and the Democrats, he sought and won a seat in the Michigan House of Representatives in 2008 and immediately decided to try for federal office.
But first Amash took a pilgrimage to Lake Jackson, Texas, to seek Ron Paul’s endorsement. Paul, says Amash, “wanted to know I thought I could win it without him. I think he doesn’t like it when people come and ask for his help who think he is going to carry them to victory just because they are big fans of his and they run as Ron Paul Republicans.” Paul campaign chairman Jesse Benton says Paul likes to know any candidate seeking his endorsement could raise at least $50,000 on his own. When self-described Paul Republicans ask for help and support, Amash reports, Paul “tells them, ‘Whatever percentage of the primary vote I got in your district, that’s how much I can help you.’ ” That’s usually not much; in Michigan, for example, Paul’s pull in 2008 was just 6 percent of primary voters statewide and only 3 percent within Amash’s district. Amash did not win on Ron Paul’s coattails; he found an independent body of voters interested in his libertarian ideas.
The Michigan congressman was redistricted this year, so he will be facing a new constituency in 2012, but he is confident he can keep his seat. While money doesn’t always win elections, as of mid-April Amash had spent more than 10 times what his two leading Democratic opponents have spent combined, some of the funds coming from Paul’s LibertyPAC. Amash doesn’t want to speculate about his possible future role as the national political leader of the liberty movement until Ron Paul is no longer in office or running for it, but he’s clearly on the shortlist.
There has been a flowering of hopeful Paulites on the state and local level as well. A New Hampshire Paul campaign volunteer and Air Force veteran named Jim Forsythe became a state senator in 2010. Forsythe and more than a handful of other self-conscious Paul devotees in the New Hampshire legislature, including Republican state Reps. Jenn Coffey, Seth Cohn, and Mark Warden, have successfully pushed legislation to fully legalize knives, loosen homeschooling regulations, and cut overall spending. Forsythe says candidates who are looking to follow in Paul’s footsteps must tailor their pitches to local needs and concerns. “You can’t just win state office by saying you are for liberty,” he says.
For every Amash and Forsythe, there are a dozen failures. B.J. Lawson, a medical software entrepreneur who was endorsed by Paul, was the GOP candidate for a North Carolina House seat in 2008 and 2010, losing both times. John Dennis of San Francisco, an ergonomic furniture entrepreneur who campaigned for Paul and was endorsed by him, ran unsuccessfully against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2010 on the Republican ticket, and is trying again this year. Paul fan and investment-world bad boy Peter Schiff, who rose to national prominence after predicting the housing bubble collapse based on the same Austrian-economics perspective espoused by Paul, made a high-profile run for a 2010 Republican Senate nomination in Connecticut. Schiff managed to pull more than 20 percent in a three-way race but lost the GOP nomination to wrestling mogul Linda McMahon. In Maryland, four self-identified “Ron Paul Republicans,” Peter James, Richard Matthews, Thomas Harris, and Michael Hargadon, won GOP House primaries in 2008, but all four lost to their Democratic opponents in the general election.
A few candidates supported by Paul’s LibertyPAC have won state House seats in Iowa, including Kim Pearson, a housewife mostly working the right-populist end of the Paul spectrum. After taking office, Pearson was appalled at the lackluster conservatism of her fellow state House Republicans on issues such as gun rights. In September 2011, she announced her intention to recruit primary challengers to unseat wishy-washy members of her own party. Four months later, however, Pearson announced that she herself would not seek re-election, highlighting the fragility of a political movement with too few bodies in the field.
As Paul has focused on his own run this election cycle, money dispersals from LibertyPAC, which is dedicated to helping Paul-like politicians, have lagged. As of March, the PAC had given to only four federal office seekers, with the largest amount, $20,000, to Paul himself. (Its ability to raise money, even with the Paul campaign as competition, has improved since 2008, however, with nearly $1.3 million raised this cycle vs. only $304,000 then.)
Paul revolutionaries clearly are willing and able to field candidates but so far have not had much success at winning elections. In April Politico counted a likely “two dozen active Paul backers who are running for House or Senate seats and another 200 or so who are seeking local offices.” A Paulite website devoted to “Liberty Candidates” has identified more than 50 Paul fellow travelers running for local, state, and federal offices. Paul fans in Southern California are pursuing a strategy of packing Los Angeles County’s GOP Central Committee with likeminded folk, while the Paul campaign is encouraging supporters to pack as many delegate and local and district-level Republican Party positions as it can. The process will be slow, but undoubtedly the Republican Party will be more libertarian down the line because of what Ron Paul did in 2008 and 2012.
Revolutionaries and Republicans
The Ron Paul Revolution’s relationship with the Republican Party is fractious. From local meetings to the national convention in 2008, many activists nurture tales of disrespect or even abuse from GOP regulars, such as cops called in to break up meetings overwhelmed by Paulites in Missouri, parliamentary rule abuses aimed at limiting Paulite chances in Louisiana, and a generally unwelcoming vibe everywhere from Texas to Oregon.
“In 2008,” observes Florida Republican activist and Paul fan Phil Blumel, “when the Ron Paul folks first showed up, they didn’t know how to deal with people professionally, and in the last few years that’s gotten better. Some of that is just them growing up. In 2008 the Ron Paul people were all really young. Now in Florida the Paul contingent is respected in a way it was not in 2008, and they dominate in some counties.”
The people who fill these party positions, although the average voter will never know who they are, “have a lot of influence on who wins primaries,” Blumel says, “because the movers and shakers of the party are listened to by lots of the rank and file. They will follow their votes. So when you have Ron Paul presented as a respected alternative by normal people like them working in their party like them, it makes it more possible for other Republicans to publicly support him.”